Chapter 1 – Divide and Rule

British government ministers today like to parade themselves as the voice of ‘reasonableness’, ‘moderation’ and ‘democracy’ in the ‘senseless’ conflict between the two religious communities in Northern Ireland.

In adopting this ‘benign’ posture they conveniently forget that it was their ancestors, the rulers of Britain in previous centuries, who deliberately whipped up sectarian rivalries in order to help them keep control of this, their oldest and closest colony. It was the British ruling class who laid the seeds of the present troubles and who bear the first responsibility for the bloodshed and the suffering of the last twenty-five years.

George III, British monarch from 1760 -1820, revealed one of the main aspects of British colonial policy when he said; “If you want to baste an Irishman you can easily get an Irishman to turn the spit”.[1]

In simpler and more modern language this can be condensed into three words, ‘Divide and Rule’. When, during George III’ s reign, the United Irishmen rose in the rebellion of 1798 and united ‘Protestant, Catholic and dissenter’ into a force which threatened Britain’s hold, divide and rule was part of the answer of the colonial administration.

Before the rising, General Knox, the commander of the British garrison in Dungannon, wrote the following to his superior officer, General Lake; “I have arranged to increase the animosity between Orangemen and the United Irish. Upon that animosity depends the safety of the center counties of the North.”[2]

Ninety years later land agitation threatened the position of the landlord class in Ireland. In 1886, the Liberal government of Gladstone introduced a Home Rule Bill. Substantial sections of the British establishment, including the absentee landlords who collected rents from Irish tenants and lived in luxury in England, feared Home Rule would lead to their overthrow.

Their opposition included again the tactic of divide and rule, to stir up opposition in Ireland. Lord Randolph Churchill, then an independent Tory MP, visited the north of Ireland and it was he, speaking at a rally in Lame, who coined what would become a much used slogan of Ulster Unionism; ” Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right”. In a private letter to the Lord Chief Justice of Ireland, Churchill explained plainly what he was up to: “I decided some time ago that if the G.O.M. (Gladstone) went for Home Rule, the Orange card would be the one to play. Please God it may turn out the ace of trumps and not the two”.[3]

Early this century the British capitalist class faced the greatest ever threat to their interests in Ireland. This did not come primarily from nationalist leaders but from the rise of a powerful and militant working class movement which had the capacity to put itself at the head of the national struggle and lead a fight, not just for independence but also for the overthrow of capitalism.

The years after the first world war brought about an explosion of the class struggle throughout Ireland. There were land and factory occupations, strikes and general strikes. In the background loomed the shadow of the Russian revolution of 1917, which at this time, before the rise of Stalin, was an inspiration to workers worldwide. Talk of setting up soviets in Ireland was commonplace, the red flag was carried in demonstrations and flown over occupied buildings. Even Labour leaders who would ultimately stand on the right of the movement, were infected by the mood and forced, at least in part, to voice what workers were saying. William O’Brien, an influential figure who would end up firmly on the right of the Irish labor movement, used his presidential address to the 1918 Congress of the Irish Transport and General Workers to laud the role of Ireland’s foremost Marxist, James Connolly, arguing that Connolly’s struggle for socialism in Ireland had influenced the “great men and women who had given us the Russian revolution”. A few weeks later O’Brien, together with other Labour leaders, addressed a meeting in Dublin’ s Mansion House in which he declared that while Sinn Fein were out for a ‘republic’, Labour were for a “workers’ republic”! It was not uncommon at the time to hear such leaders hail the Bolsheviks and speak of the need for a ‘soviet type government’ at home.

The mainly Protestant north east of Ireland was infected by the rise in militancy bath in Ireland and Britain. In January 1919, Belfast engineering workers began an all out strike for shorter hours. The strike lasted four weeks and spread to other workplaces. Catholics and Protestants were united in this battle. The strike was defeated but the class unity demonstrated during it was maintained. 100,000 took part in that year’s May Day march where the theme was ‘internationalism’. One resolution unanimously passed at the huge rally in Belfast’s Ormeau Park declared solidarity ‘without reservation of either creed or color …with the workers of all lands…in renewed hope of a new earth.”[4]

It was against the background of such events that the newly formed Irish Republican Army launched a guerrilla campaign to win independence. For the British ruling class, the IRA and their rapidly growing political counterpart, Sinn Fein, were not the main problem. The main threat came from the rising militancy and growing unity of the working class, north and south, Catholic and Protestant. They feared that independence would lead to socialist revolution in Ireland, which would then spread to Britain.

Once again they resorted to the tried and tested tactic of divide and rule. In 1920 a Government of Ireland Act was passed at Westminster. This 1 proposed the partition of Ireland and the creation of a state based on six of the original nine counties of Ulster and which had a Protestant majority but also a significant Catholic minority of about one third of the population.

Echoing the words of General Knox 120 years earlier, Tory leader Bonar Law wrote to Prime Minister Lloyd George advising that Britain should underwrite the northern state and go along with Unionist demands for a new, armed, ‘unionist’ police force. “We cannot afford to have everyone in Ireland against us, and I think the time has come when we ought to make special arrangements to let the loyalists in Ulster be in a position to preserve order there.”[5]

Two Sectarian States

Partition succeeded in its main purpose of dividing the working class and derailing the socialist movement. The formation of the new northern state was accompanied by an offensive against the unity of the working class and against the forces of labor.

In the first years of the new state, thousands of workers were expelled from their jobs and driven from their homes. Behind the cover of these anti-Catholic pogroms, socialists, Labour Party members and trade union activists were targeted. One in four of those forced out of their jobs were in fact Protestants, the bulk of them activists in the 1919 strike.

Partition created not one, but two, poverty ridden, repressive and sectarian states. The new state in the south, where unemployment was over 100,000, consolidated itself by military repression. The Catholic Church became one of its main pillars, much of Catholic social teaching eventually becoming law.

Unionism maintained its grip over the north, where 70,000, or 24% of the workforce, were out of work, by repression and by blatant discrimination against the Catholic minority. Electoral boundaries were crudely ‘gerrymandered’, i.e. manipulated, so that even areas with big Catholic majorities remained in Protestant (i.e. unionist) hands. In 1922 the secretary of the Tyrone Unionist Association wrote to his Fermanagh counterpart: “I suppose you are engaged in a scheme to make Fermanagh safe… [I am] gerrymandering at night… it is the hardest job I ever undertook… We have a big nationalist majority against us.”[6]

The British capitalists had solved their immediate problem, but at the cost of creating a potentially much greater problem which capitalism would never be able to resolve.

Any idea of re-unifying Ireland on a capitalist basis – that is merging two poverty ridden states into one – would be bound to provoke armed resistance from the million northern Protestants. They would never peacefully allow themselves to be put in a situation where they would end up as the discriminated against minority.

On the other hand the Catholic working class of the northern state, sentenced to a future of permanent mass unemployment and poverty under capitalism, could not be fully incorporated into this state, especially given the discrimination and repression they suffered.

So, despite the hand wringing and moralizing of its present day representatives, it was the British ruling class who prepared the ingredients for the violence of the last quarter century. They created a problem which on a capitalist basis, quite simply has no solution.


  1. Stewart, A.T.Q. Edward Carson. Dublin: Gill and McMillan, 1981. p 39.
  2. De Paor, Liam. Divided Ulster. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971. p 27.
  3. Ibid. p 57
  4. Morgan, Austen. Labour and Partition: The Belfast Working Class, 1905-1923. London: Pluto Press, 1991. p 249.
  5. Butron Institute of Irish Studies. Brookeborough, The Making of a Prime Minister. QUB, 1998. p 38.
  6. Ibid. p 64.